Monday, June 25, 2007

Elegy for Ellie

Church of Our Saviour, June 13, 2007

I knew Ellie Leach for less than a year, but she made quite an impression on me, as she did on everyone. It was my pleasure to see her not only every Sunday at church, but she also came to almost every single bible study and Eucharist on Wednesday mornings here at Our Saviour. She really seemed to love the bible study after the service, and even with her greatly limiting disability, she would sometimes explode with enthusiasm when some particularly apt theological point was made. “BINGO!” She would cry, punching the air with her fist. I haven’t been a priest for very long but this is the first time I had heard “bingo!” used for “Amen!” But we all understood what she meant. And her daughter told me that on the way home after bible study she could hardly hold her excitement and would sometimes say “fassssinating!”

But language for Ellie was a unique and unpredictable thing. Because of the strokes she suffered when only in her fifties (in other words, in the bloom of youth) she had to be especially inventive and expressive to get her meaning across. She had a favorite all-purpose word, “peedo” which according to her family could mean almost anything depending on the inflection. It could mean, “Boy are you in trouble” or “Oh wonderful!”

I always loved to look at Ellie. She was always beautiful and beautifully groomed. I loved to tell her so for two reasons: First, it was true, and secondly I loved to see that beautiful smiled grow even wider when she heard the complement. But I always saw a certain mischievousness in that smile that I didn’t understand until just lately. Her daughter recently told me that early in Ellie’s time of speechlessness, neighbors or friends would sometimes over-estimate her disability and tell her things they assumed she could never repeat. But she developed a brilliant revenue of charade and pantomime gestures that enabled her to tell elaborate and apparently sometimes rather juicy stories when she wanted to. People soon realized that it was her power of speech, not her power of communication that was impaired.

Ellie not only was beautiful, but she adored beautiful things. She loved flowers and was quite a skilled arranger of flowers up until quite recently. Porter told me that her table was always set not only flowers but a runner and always with candles. She loved to place candles everywhere, especially on windowsills and once Porter counted 100 candles that she had arranged in a vacation house. Clearly she seemed to feel it was better to light at least one (if not 100) candles than to curse the darkness.

Another of Ellie’s passions and probably her major one, was childhood education. After years of working as a kindergarten teacher, Ellie started a preschool at St. Matthew church in the Pacific Palisades, starting with 25 students that is now a thriving concern and has a building named after Ellie. The last service Ellie attended at Church of Our Saviour was a Community Sunday, when all the children join us. She loved to see the children come up to the altar and take part in the service. I remember giving her communion that day, because I always remember giving her communion. She was an unforgettable presence.

The marriage of Ellie and Porter was truly one that was made in heaven. They were married for 67 years. The groom is 92 now, and the bride turned 89 last Nov. 7 or 8; the date of her birth is uncertain because, as her mother told her, the doctor was drunk. But we give thanks that that doctor did successfully delivered into this world on Nov 7 or 8th 1918, and that she married her soul mate on April 13, 1940, a date we are certain of. As Porter said to me, “We just fit.”

When I visited Ellie in the hospital with her family gathered all around her, that dearness still radiated from her. She was completely still except for her breath, but that sweetness came through anyhow. I was reminded, in that stillness, of a chrysalis just waiting for the spirit to burst forth like a butterfly. About an hour after I left that spirit did burst forth and her daughters and grandchildren and even a great-granddaughter were there with her. What a life she lived. She will remain in the hearts of all who knew and loved her at this church and in the hearts of so many others who loved her. God bless you Ellie, and may flights of angels sing you to your rest.